For Jim DeMint, Changing America Means Starting Small The former U.S. senator, now head of the Heritage Foundation, reflects on the state of the Republican Party, the Tea Party and what he thinks it will take to change Washington.

For Jim DeMint, Changing America Means Starting Small

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

This week, the Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC, kicks off its annual meeting here in Washington. It will be a-who's-who of Republican presidential contenders and marquee conservatives, names like Jim DeMint. The former senator from South Carolina has played a key role in the rise of the Tea Party, both in the Senate and beyond. And last year, DeMint gave up his Senate seat to lead the powerful conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation.

We recently sat down with him to talk about life outside the Senate and his new book, "Falling In Love with America Again." In it, DeMint quotes the 18th century political thinker Edmund Burke who argued that a person's love of country begins small, with a love of what Burke called little platoons of family, friends and community. And DeMint says he's worried that the federal government is getting in the way of a system and a nation that works better from the ground up.

JIM DEMINT: I'm concerned that America is going in the wrong direction. I know a lot of young people no longer believe the American dream is attainable for them, and this will probably be the first generation that has it worse than their parents. So if we're going to change the course of the country, we just have to remember what made us great in the first place. And it does begin with individuals and the little platoons that are around them.

CORNISH: How do you think that this approach, your way of messaging, is different from what the party has been doing?

DEMINT: Well, keep in mind Heritage is not a Republican organization. I mean we talk about conservative ideas and we do a lot of research to prove that those ideas make life better for people. But I think the mistake that conservatives and really a lot of politicians have made is to talk about policies without connecting to what people really care about. And I think that's particularly true of conservatives and probably Republicans.

And I know from being in the advertising and marketing business, you might have a great product, but if people perceive something different it doesn't really matter. That is the reality. And so, what we are able to do at Heritage that the Republican Party can't do is we can approach people and talk about a set of ideas outside the political framework.

CORNISH: When you talk about it not being attached to party, do you think that's something that maybe your former colleagues don't quite yet? I mean when I hear someone like Orrin Hatch said that, you know, Heritage used to be a conservative organization helping conservatives helping us to have the best intellectual ideas, he's arguing that there's a question in the mind of Republicans about whether Heritage is getting so political they're not helpful to the Senate GOP in particular.

DEMINT: Well, I know from being on the Hill for 15 years that it got to the point where we had good ideas from Heritage, but it was more of the members of Congress would just pat the Heritage folks on the head and say that's really cute, but we're going to respond to K Street, or we're going to respond to some big lobby interest. That's not fair to the American people. We feel that Americans need their voices heard on Capitol Hill. That's what Heritage Action does.

But the Heritage Foundation is continuing to provide the best ideas and policies. We've got 10 pieces of legislation that were shaped by our research that are now being pushed in the House and the Senate, and that number will expand as we go through the year.

But again, the folks on the Hill don't like accountability. They were criticizing me when I was in the Senate because I determined we needed to consider maybe changing the folks who are here if we were going to change the place.

CORNISH: Given your legacy and support for that movement in the particular, what is it like for you to see them described, say, like in The Wall Street Journal, as a kind of rump, kamikaze caucus? You know, that's a really strong term as being blamed for potentially jeopardizing a chance at a majority.

DEMINT: Well, though - well, there was no such thing of the Tea Party in 2006 when Republicans lost the majority in both Houses. The Tea Party wasn't around in 2008 when we lost the presidency and the party nominated a moderate, John McCain. The only election they have won in the last decade was 2010, when a grassroots movement, some were called Tea Party, some were just Americans, were concerned about the direction of the country. And a lot of Republicans embraced that and that helped them win the House. It brought Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Pat Toomey, a number of new people to the Senate. But the Republican Party has not embraced those ideas. In fact, they've pushed them away. And I think...

CORNISH: Do you feel like that's been an uphill battle...

DEMINT: their own detriment. But we are not going to worry about what the Republicans or Democrats do. What we're going to try to do is unite the country and we believe the politics will follow, and hopefully people in both parties will follow.

CORNISH: I ask because, you know, platoons - I understand the concept of the platoons. Platoons are also divisions, right?

DEMINT: They are.

CORNISH: And that has been the criticism leveled at where politics are going, that it's more divisive.

DEMINT: Well, it's divisive when someone at a central level is making a one-size-fits-all decision for all of us. You and I can get along just fine until someone walks in and says you have to do what I do. Then we get mad at each other and whoever told us what we have to do that. The smaller platoons, and what unites this country, is not that we're all the same. It's that we have always had the freedom to live the lives that we want, to believe the things that we want and we're not forced to give up our beliefs because of some central power. But as the federal government makes more sense decisions about more aspects of our lives, it has created a lot of division and anger in our country.

CORNISH: In the book you talk about leaving the Senate. And you said that you left the Senate because you believed you could have more influence on policy from the outside. Now that you have been out...


CORNISH: ...for a little while, how has that borne out? Was it the right move?

DEMINT: There's no question about it. The only way to turn this country around is outside of Washington. And...

CORNISH: So people are hearing that from a veteran senator.

DEMINT: I've been on the inside and the outside. And I...

CORNISH: That's a little depressing, right?

DEMINT: Well, I know I was in the House six years, the Senate eight years. But I had my own business. I worked in my community for about 20 years. And I did more good in my community for more people than I did in the Senate for my community. And what I know is that there are millions of people like Jim DeMint, who was a small influence in a small community, that can do that all over the country.

But even before I came to Congress, I was seeing the result of federal policies that were causing more problems than they were solving, and make it harder for us who are trying to work together to solve them. So the country needs to have the federal government focus on the things it has to do, like defending our country, making sure foreign policy is in place. But as far as a strong economy and a strong society, most of that needs to be done at the ground level.

CORNISH: Former Senator Jim DeMint, now president and CEO of the Heritage Foundation. His new book is called "Falling in Love with America Again."

Thank you so much for talking with us.

DEMINT: Thank you, Audie.


BLOCK: This is NPR News.

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